A synthetic differentiation circuit in Escherichia coli for suppressing mutant takeover

David S. Glass, Anat Bren, Elizabeth Vaisbourd, Avi Mayo, Uri Alon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Differentiation is crucial for multicellularity. However, it is inherently susceptible to mutant cells that fail to differentiate. These mutants outcompete normal cells by excessive self-renewal. It remains unclear what mechanisms can resist such mutant expansion. Here, we demonstrate a solution by engineering a synthetic differentiation circuit in Escherichia coli that selects against these mutants via a biphasic fitness strategy. The circuit provides tunable production of synthetic analogs of stem, progenitor, and differentiated cells. It resists mutations by coupling differentiation to the production of an essential enzyme, thereby disadvantaging non-differentiating mutants. The circuit selected for and maintained a positive differentiation rate in long-term evolution. Surprisingly, this rate remained constant across vast changes in growth conditions. We found that transit-amplifying cells (fast-growing progenitors) underlie this environmental robustness. Our results provide insight into the stability of differentiation and demonstrate a powerful method for engineering evolutionarily stable multicellular consortia.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)931-944.e12
Issue number4
Early online date5 Feb 2024
StatePublished - 15 Feb 2024


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